Thomas Bender, NYU professor of history and the humanities, laments that historians have “lost their public.” Economics, he notes, “has an audience in corporate and government circles; sociology and psychology have important roles in the social services. But historians generally have not had a similar targeted audience, except in schools. They have aspired to reach a general public, to explain the past and its relationship to the present and, perhaps, the future. While once we were successful in doing that, for a long time we have been digging ourselves into a hole.”
Bender’s explanation is in that professional history has become too sophisticated for the general reader, that “as historians eschewed biography, narrative style, and large topics, our writing also became analytic: an explanation of the nature of the sources, methodology (often quantitative), and particular findings. We began to imagine not a general reader but fellow specialists at our elbow.”
Although Bender is no doubt correct, I think the hole historians have dug is both wider and deeper than the “victims of their own success” explanation (at writing more and more sophisticated but fragmented, esoteric studies). When the public encounters historians these days, it is all too often in the form of politically correct scolds — in Op Eds, petitions, legal briefs — offering their scholarship as ammunition to progressives (and only progressives) in various cultural and partisan skirmishes.
A classic (but not unique) example of the historian as progressive scold, or “avenging angel,” was provided in testimony to House Judiciary Committee in 1998 in which Princeton’s Sean Wilentz accused any Representatives who voted in favor of President Clinton’s impeachment of being “zealots and fanatics” and threatening “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.” Wilentz is now a frequent contributor to the New York Times and pontificator on CNN and MSNBC.
Over 400 historians signed a petition against impeachment organized by Wilentz, but one who did not was Columbia’s Eric Foner. “I thought the impeachment of Clinton was absurd,” Foner commented years later in a conversation with law students and faculty, “but I refused to sign it [because] I am against this whole idea that originalism is how you decide whether the guy should be impeached or not, and moreover I notice that most of the people who signed this are not constitutional scholars.” Foner added an important observation that, as we shall see below, will come back to bite him, “The attempt to use history to answer political questions can often lead you to be skating on very thin ice.”
If using history to pronounce winners (and denounce losers) in contemporary political controversies really is “skating on very thin ice,” then a substantial number of practicing American historians, including many prominent one, are both cold and all wet. In the recent past large numbers of them have signed legal briefs, to cite a few examples, supporting abortion rights, supporting gun control, opposing laws prohibiting homosexual sex, supporting gay marriage, arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 allows claims for retaliation and prohibits discrimination private parties as well as government, and, perhaps most remarkably, arguing that the 14th Amendment bars state constitutional amendments that require colorblind equal treatment.
Inimical to Historians’ Values
In addition to filing legal briefs and serving as expert witnesses in politically charged litigation, historians have also circulated innumerable petitions and passed resolutions at their professional meetings, always taking the progressive side in political controversies. One opposed the legal views of a Bush administration official; another opposed the nomination of a federal judge. And as I discussed in Historical Chutzpah and Historical Chutzpah II, over 1200 historians signed petitions opposing the Iraq war, claiming attention based on their identity as historians (very loosely defined) even though a substantial number of them were in fields of history totally unrelated to war, peace, or even American history.
In a similar vein, the American Historical Association passed “an unprecedented resolution” signed by over 150 historians (one of whom was NYU’s Thomas Bender) condemning “United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession.” These practices “during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror” included such heinous activities as “condemning as ‘revisionism’ the search for truth about pre-war intelligence” and “reclassifying previously unclassified government documents,” which violated the AHA’s “principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession.” Curiously, so far I have seen no petition or resolution from historians condemning Hillary Clinton’s decision to conduct all of her electronic communications as Secretary of State on her own private server, deciding on her own what information to preserve and what to destroy.
Correct Answer: Reagan Was Bellicose
Even in the area where Prof. Bender acknowledges historians do have a “targeted audience,” the schools, historians are frequently encountered more as progressive advocates than independent professionals. Every ten years, it seems, historians, the Washington Post reported in 2010, “speak out against proposed Texas textbook changes” (“Textbooks A Texas Dentist Could Love.” the New York Times chimed in). More recently, former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Lynne Cheney has published a blistering article in the Wall Street Journal, “The End of History, Part II, criticizing the ideological bias of revisions to the College Board’s Advanced Placement in United States History (APUSH) standards. Example: the correct answer to a question on how to interpret President Reagan’s famous remark at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987 — ”If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — is that it represented an example of America’s “increased assertiveness and bellicosity.”
In short, whatever the richness of modern historical scholarship, when historians go public these days — in court, on OpEd pages, on TV — they are all too often seen, correctly, as high priests delivering The Word from what NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called “a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility.” Economists and law professors and many social scientists are contentiously divided over what public policies should flow from a correct understanding of their fields, but for whatever reason the public voice of American historians is depressingly monotonous, the history lessons it would have us learn increasingly indistinguishable from the editorial pages of the New York Times, the talking heads of CNN and MSNBC, and the positions of the Democratic party.